10 best art exhibitions of 2019 (London)

Lee Krasner

It was a long and tumultuous year for London. People stormed the streets to demand a fair, non-racist society, to protect the NHS and defend human rights. Extinction Rebellion protesters spoke out loud for the safety of our planet. There were unlawful arrests and protest halts but in November hundred of protesters were given the right to sue the Metropolitan Police. Brexit also marked a huge question over the future of touring for international art and artists and the safety of European nationals living in the UK. Inside the city’s major museums and galleries, most of the artworks spoke in favour of the people’s voice and this was refreshing.

Here is a round up of how artists and art curators responded to national and international events.

Lee Krasner: Living Colour
May – September

The Barbican hosted the first European retrospective of Lee Kransner’s work in 50 years. Lee Krasner: Living Colour was a rare and exciting opportunity to experience the work of a modern icon whose marriage to one of America’s greatest abstract artists, Jackson Pollock, never compromised her own artistic vision. Highlights included the electric Desert Moon, 1955 and Icarus, 1964 – a huge canvas sitting in a calm space flooded with natural light towards the end of the exhibition.

Krasners canvases at a time of crisis when Pollock died in a car crash in 1956, “Night Journeys” as dubbed by her poet friend Richard Howard, are echos of eruption, emotion and sadness. She described these 24 works of white and umber as “embarrassingly realistic… I was going down deep into something which wasn’t easy or pleasant.” She was a member of the American Abstract Artists group who defied a signature vision and one of the few women to have had a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1984.

Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion
& Diane Arbus: In the Beginning
Hayward Gallery
February – May

Measure and Control, Kader Attia, 2013

One of my two exhibition highlights this year with reference on the brutality of colonialism, Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion addressed the effects of colonial legacies and the complexities of reparation. It opened with a series of the French-Algerian artist’s photographs, sculptures, installations and collages. 

In the upper galleries, Diane Arbus: In the Beginning was a collaboration between New York’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hayward Gallery. It looked into the formative first half of Arbus’ career that shaped her widely celebrated photographs.

Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth
& Antony Gormley
Royal Academy
January – March & September – December

Tristan’s Ascension: The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall detail, Bill Viola, 2005

A powerful production with video installations by Bill Viola alongside rare drawings by the Renaissance master, turned the Royal Academy galleries into a transcendental experience of space and time. Though risky for exploring consciousness and states of being, Bill Viola / Michelangelo charted a grand viewing experience. As pioneer of video art, Viola opposite Michelangelo wasn’t just a look into art of five centuries apart, it was a study of the fundamental concept of capturing.

Antony Gormley, the follow up exhibition in the Royal Academy’s main galleries, was an equally huge production that explored the artist’s wide-ranging use of materials reflecting on scale and architecture. Alongside the rarely seen artist’s workbooks from 1977-88, other highlights included Host, made of seawater and clay, the approximately 27 tonnes of steel Cave and Matrix III, a 6 tonnes steel mesh, all 2019. The exhibition also sought to provide a platform during the week-long Extinction Rebellion protests in London. At the time of my visit a protester inside the gallery that hosted Gormley’s work Primordial… Lost Horizon I shifted the visitors’ attention towards climate concerns and air pollution with a “Fly Now Pay Later” banner.

Don McCullin
Tate Britain
Feb – May

Two local boys in Bradford, Don McCullin, 1972

Legendary photojournalist Don McCullin was celebrated this year with a major retrospective at Tate Britain and over 250 photographs, all printed by McCullin himself in his darkroom. Visiting the exhibition was one these moments when you come opposite the brutal face of history and your body knows it. Showcasing some of McCullin’s most powerful images, which he captured in the last 60 years at home and abroad, it was a devastating record of poverty in England and a journey past brutal wars and international conflicts, and their impact on people. 

Emma Kunz: Visionary Drawings
March – May

Work No. 004
Photo: © Emma Kunz Zentrum

It was the first UK solo exhibition by Swiss psychic healer and researcher of nature Emma Kunz (1892–1963), featuring over 40 of her visually astonishing drawings. Emma Kunz: Visionary Drawings was conceived with artist Christodoulos Panayiotou who has a long-term interest in Kunz’s work and produced new stone benches for visitors to use inside the gallery. Attempting to find a universal connection, Kunz predicted that her drawings were destined for the 21st century. This survey exhibition of her work with her ‘energy-field’ compositions was a timely opportunity to find healing connection with our environment.

Tate Modern
July – October

Vassilakis Takis. Photo by Jacques Haillot

Belated but crucially important was the first major UK retrospective of late sculptor of magnetism, sound and light, Takis (1925-2019). Over 70 wonders by an original of artistic voices – produced throughout his life using magnets, electricity and viewer participation to generate sound – were brought to light in collaboration with MACBA Museu D’Art Contemporani and the Museum of Cycladic Art.

The exhibition was a major highlight – walking along the gallery spaces felt like a magnetic field bonded by art and science. Some documents on display related to art activism were also of huge significance. We learned that in 1969, Takis removed his work from the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the exhibition The Museum as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Agebecause they were exhibited without his consent. His protest led to the formation of the Art Workers Coalition (AWC). AWCs initial documents were published in mid-1969 beginning with a statement from the artist:

Let’s hope that our unanimous decision January 1st 1969 to remove my work from the Machine exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art will be just the first in a series of acts against the stagnant policies of art museum all over the world. Let us unite, artists with scientists, students with workers, to change these anachronistic situations into information centres for all artistic activities, and in this way create a time when art can be enjoyed freely by each individual.

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus
Turbine Hall, Tate Modern
October through to April 2020

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus, 2019

With Fons Americanus, 13-metre tall fountain, acclaimed artist Kara Walker confronted oblivion through the representation of a bold historical record in this most ambitious commissions for the Tate’s Turbine Hall to date. Walker’s fountain was inspired by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. Built from recyclable cork, wood and metal and using an environmentally-conscious production process Fons Americanus is a work of undebatable importance regarding the history of race, slavery and violence.

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus is on display until April 2020.

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition
Design Museum
April – September

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

A unique insight into the director’s huge archive of photographs, designs and props, the Design Museum’s Stanley Kubrick exhibition was a wonderfully curated presentation of the iconic filmmaker’s relationship to Britain and his collaboration with key designers including Hardy Amies, Saul Bass, Eliot Noyes, Milena Canonero, and Ken Adam.

The exhibition was a journey through his unique lens and masterpieces such as Full Metal Jacket (1987), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Dr Strangelove (1964). Highlights included the camera lens designed for NASA to shoot by candlelight (Barry Lyndon) and the prop for Dr Strangelove’s war room.

Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography from 1956 to 2016
Photographers’ Gallery
June – October

The Quixote of the street lamp, Alberto Korda, 1959

From street documentary to collage, Urban Impulses embraced Latin American photography from 1959 to 2016 with more than 200 images. Curated in two themes, ‘Shouts’ and ‘Pop-ular’ to reflect on the past and the present, included were works by Alberto Korda, Graciela Iturbide and Sergio Larrain alongside emerging photographers such as Eduardo Longoni, Beatriz Jaramillo and Pablo Ortíz Monasterio.

Currently at the crossroads of a new public outcry over the rapid transition to a consumer society, Latin America is woven with mass social movements that fought against the struggle of disconnected democracies. Local people, and places were the heart of the exhibition and during the military dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay photography was the weapon against silence. Later, popular culture and advertising multiplied international consumerism and placed the poor at risk. There were a lot to reflect on these photographs and a followup to Urban Impulses with works post-2016 would be a part two exhibition I’d love to see it happen.

Hackney’s Got Style: Celebrating the History of Impact of African and Caribbean Fashion and Hair
Hackney Museum
October through to January 2020

Dalston in the 1980s. Image by the Tape Slide Newsreel Group

A hugely influential exhibition in the heart of east London, it celebrates African and Caribbean style and how it has impacted identity seven decades after the Windrush Generation began to arrive in 1948. Curated by Rebecca Odell and Rowena Hillel with careful research in the local area, Hackney’s Got Style showcases how black fashion and hair have influenced British culture. Highlights include the local tale of Britain’s first black millionaires – Lincoln Dyke and Dudley Dryden – who set up shop in Hackney selling records and hair equipment to fight discrimination. Without realising, they eventually gave birth to the beauty salon as a cultural haunt. Also powerful is the story behind afro hair as a symbol of pride, protest and empowerment.

There’s still plenty of time to visit Hackney’s Got Style exhibition. It runs through to 11 January 2020 and it’s entry free.


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